Portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and unveiled there earlier this week, are political statements, not portraits. Call the effort agenda art.


Consider the painting of the former first lady. Artist Amy Sherald posed her as if she were a fashion model dolled up in a designer dress with a loud geometric pattern so bold that it's the main attraction – the way of any good style ad. This was intentional. As the National Portrait Gallery curator Dorothy Moss acknowledged to the press, the way the artist pictured Michelle Obama is meant to highlight the importance of African-Americans.

Apparently we’re supposed to know that the dress designer is black and so is the painter. Add in the race of the sitter and the subject of the portrait is, as the curator points out, race. Reportedly, the artist told African-American girls visiting the Portrait Gallery, “I painted this for you so that when you go to a museum you will see someone who looks like you on the wall.”

Missing person

But unless you know the backstory – the ethnicity of the dress designer and the artist – race isn’t the obvious message. High-fashion is. No sign of the woman who is a lawyer, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, who served as associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago, and Vice President for Community and External Affairs of the University of Chicago Medical Center.

No sign of the thinking person that the Former first lady is.

No way out

The 44th president doesn’t fare any better with his portrait. He sits forward, forearms on his knees, staring out from a forest of flowers and foliage, as if he’s wondering what he’s doing in all the greenery and looking for a way out of it. The flowers, you see, reference Obama’s roots in Hawaii, as well as his father’s Kenyan birthplace.

Artist Kehinde Wiley packed the painting with so much symbolism that you’d need a tutorial to appreciate it. Jasmine blooms stand for Hawaii where Obama was born. Chrysanthemums stand for Chicago, where he lived before he became president. African lilies stand for his Kenyan roots -- as if roots were the whole picture of the former president.

Art News magazine calls these portraits contemporary. But they’re not, really. Queen Elizabeth’s portrait by Lucian Freud, now that’s contemporary.

Where's Freud when you need him?

Freud pictured the Queen as she is: aged, with sagging and wrinkled skin. His feverish brushwork adds to the intensity of her decline. But given that Elizabeth likes the portrait, it makes it a show and tell of her honesty and stoicism. And as British art critic Adrian Searle said of the Queen's painting, “Portraiture is meant to get beneath the skin.” Tell that to fellow British art critic Jonathan Jones who deems Michelle Obama’s likeness “a modern-day Mona Lisa.”